Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements is a film starring individuals who are deaf, but do not call it a film just for people who are deaf. A breakout film appealing to a general audience, Moonlight Sonata explores in a sensory way how a deaf person experiences the world through sound design and music. Overall, the film, which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, is a celebration of family.
A deeply personal portrait of three lives, Moonlight Sonata chronicles the discoveries that lie beyond loss: a deaf boy growing up, his deaf grandfather growing old, and Beethoven the year he was blindsided by deafness and wrote his iconic sonata.
Director and Producer Irene Taylor Brodsky entered into a development deal with HBO in 2007 and began creating assets. When Jonas, her young son who is deaf and an excellent pianist, wanted to learn the Moonlight Sonata, Brodsky realized she had her film’s narrative: “Beethoven’s loss and Jonas’ loss and what they gained from their deafness.”
“Their imperfection becomes their greatest asset,” Brodsky asserted.
Deafness is defined as a hearing loss that prevents a person from understanding speech through the ear. People who are hard of hearing have a more mild or moderate hearing loss that may or may not be corrected with amplification. A person who is deaf also may have speech difficulties. A 2011 study led by Johns Hopkins University researchers that used the World Health Organization’s definition for hearing loss (i.e., the inability to hear sounds of 25 decibels or less in the speech frequencies) found that nearly a fifth of all Americans, or about 30 million people, have hearing loss in both ears, and that 48 million Americans have hearing loss in at least one ear.
Producer Tahria Sheather said she was attracted to this film because she is “fascinated by how different people experience the world.”
Sheather and Brodsky did not have to think twice about adding captions to their film to ensure accessibility for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. But Brodksy said they captioned their film “beyond industry standards.”
“Our film is about creating an aural atmosphere,” she explained, saying their captioning went beyond just the dialogue. “Sound is a character in our movie.”
During an interview at Sundance, Brodsky also said audio description is an “obvious next step.”
“One of the challenges of making films fully accessible at Sundance is because they are looking for world premieres,” Brodsky explained.
Things like audio description take time to do well and most films are being completed in the weeks leading up to a film festival, which often do not require accessibility features like audio description.
“If you want to create accessibility right, it takes time,” Brodsky said. “The people you are serving need to try it out multiple times and tell you what still needs to be fixed.”
Sheather added that while captioning can be time consuming, it is necessary. “It can be a lot to ask independent filmmakers to caption films, but the payoff is great,” she explained.
Looking Toward the Future
Moonlight Sonata will be shown at the opening night gala of Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan’s ReelAbilities Film Festival: New York on April 2, 2019. The 2019 ReelAbilities Film Festival continues to showcase talent from around the world dedicated to awareness of the stories and artistic expressions of people with different abilities. The festival celebrates the diversity of the shared human experience through engaging films and events and encourages inclusion and responsible portrayals in cinema of people with disabilities, the most underrepresented minority in America media.
“This year is not only our largest festival, but also our most accessible to date as we continue to raise the bar on inclusive forms of film presentation,” said Isaac Zablocki, director and co-founder of the festival. “The themes of the films are more diverse than ever, and the high level of storytelling makes these films relatable to everyone, with or without a disability.”
Brodsky will get her wish for furthered accessibility for the film – it now will be available with audio description, which was sponsored by Michele Spitz (Woman of Her Word) and voiced by Erin Deward for ReelAbilities. Accessibility aids will be provided at this screening.
“I’m greatly honored to afford the opportunity to ensure infinite access is well in place for visually impaired audiences to fully experience such a meaningful and impactful film,” Spitz said.
“When you are part of ReelAbilities, if you don’t have these assets, the festival provides and presses filmmakers to think about their films in a new way,” added Brodsky. “In the case of our film, we thought a lot about how much we caption the aural atmosphere, but we had not thought about how would we describe this scene to someone who cannot see it. Any process who makes us think about our film is a new way is valuable for us as artists as well as for the new audiences it creates.”
Moonlight Sonata also will be available on HBO next year, but the production team is ramping up for an ambitious theatrical campaign.
If the film were to play in commercial theaters, who are by law required to have assisted devices (versus a film festival like Sundance operating under voluntary compliance), it would be a “home run for the deaf and hard of hearing community and a real win for the disability community,” Brodsky said.
Moonlight Sonata is produced by HBO, Vermilion Films, Irene Taylor Brodsky and Tahria Sheather.
Lauren Appelbaum is Communications Director at RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for and with people with disabilities. She brings more than 10 years of experience in strategic and crisis communications, writing, video and web production, news gathering and social media to the disability agenda. Appelbaum has published hundreds of articles on the intersection of disability, employment, Hollywood and politics. Appelbaum currently oversees RespectAbility’s outreach to Hollywood to stand up against ableism and other prejudice – while promoting positive, accurate, diverse and inclusive media portrayals on TV and in film. She also manages the #PwDsVote political outreach and the #RespectTheAbility stigma and social media campaigns, covering companies’ best practices in recruiting and employing people with disabilities. In addition, she supervises several Communications Fellows through RespectAbility’s National Leadership Program.
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